ITALY is to press on with plans to open 1000 new gambling arcades despite mounting national anguish over the spread of pathological gambling in what until recently was a nation of frugal savers.
Silvio Berlusconi's last government authorised the new video-poker saloons in 2011. A contest to decide who should get the licences is due to be held by the end of January.
The technocratic government of Mario Monti made a last-ditch bid to suspend the competition by another six months. But a clause inserted in the 2013 budget was thrown out in committee as MPs raced to clear the way for the dissolution of parliament on December 22.
Under pressure to boost state revenues and pay off huge public debts, successive governments have relaxed once-strict gambling laws. The first significant change in 1994 legalised scratch-card lotteries.
But it was not until the mid-2000s that gambling mania seized Italy.
Simone Feder, a psychologist and adviser to the juvenile court in Milan, also works with a Catholic Church-run refuge in Pavia that helps addicts of all kinds. He remembers 2004 as "the year the punters began knocking at the door".
Among those staying at the refuge before Christmas was the wife of a Turin shopkeeper who described how she had been reduced to penury by her husband's compulsion. "At the start, he went to casinos and played the lottery. But about 10 years ago, he switched to scratch cards," she said.
"I'd say things like: 'This month, we don't seem to have as much cash as I thought.' But I had no idea how much he was spending."
By the time she found out, his losses came to ?60,000 ($76,500). There was no option but to sell the house to meet his debts. At the age of 50, she was starting work as a cleaner.
"In a final, terrible gesture, [he] stole my jewellery and sold it," she said. He had made ?3800 - and spent it all on scratch-cards.
In November, Monica Pavesi, a bar owner in the town of Cremona, south of Milan, won national notoriety after she had ordered the removal of gambling machines from her premises, forgoing a monthly income of about ?2700. She was quoted as saying: "I couldn't bear any longer to see people ruining themselves in that way."
Mr Feder said that, despite the rise in cases of pathological gambling, "it is still not recognised [by the authorities] as an addiction". Sufferers could not, as a result, be treated in the national health system.
Because of that, there is no reliable estimate of the number of addicts. A religious NGO, Associazione Libera, has put the figure at 800,000.
Earlier this month, officials in predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol reported that the number of compulsive gamblers who had sought help in the province had risen by 76 per cent in 12 months. The figure was released as authorities there announced a ban on slot machines within 300 metres of "sensitive locations" such as schools, youth clubs, retirement homes and hospitals.
A spokesman for the gambling industry's representative body said it would challenge the order, describing it as "a way of fuelling illegal gaming". But the industry is co-operating with measures that will require gambling machines to carry "health warnings" and an indication of the odds against winning.
In June, Mr Feder surveyed almost 2000 secondary school students in Pavia. He found that 5 per cent had a close relative who was a habitual gambler.
But the most disturbing conclusion came when the teenagers were asked why people gambled. The most common response - by 57 per cent of interviewees - was "to get rich".
"In fact, of course, it is always the 'bank' that wins," Mr Feder said.